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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'President' Rutskoi Hits the Campaign Trail

SARATOV, Central Russia -- Alexander Rutskoi believes he is the president of Russia and he is already hot on the campaign trail to make sure that next time he gets power with the title.

Dressed in a beige double-breasted jacket and black pants, his trademark mustache immaculately coiffed, Rutskoi vigorously demonstrated to his audience in the Volga city of Saratov this week that he is back in the game.

"When they declare presidential elections in the future, I will definitely be a candidate," Rutskoi told The Moscow Times. "I am building a political base not only for the presidency but also for the Duma."

Virtually unnoticed by Russia's national media, the war hero, politician and leader of last October's parliament uprising is quietly building the grassroots party structure he will need to wage a future presidential campaign. Since last month, Rutskoi has traveled to Volgograd, Kursk, Samara, and Krasnodar, and on Tuesday and Wednesday he visited Saratov 650 kilometers southeast of Moscow.

"I'm starting in the regions far from Moscow," he told workers in Saratov, a city of many defense plants now suffering from a severe industrial slump. "By winter we can gather the real force of an opposition movement and hold our first Congress."

In the world according to Rutskoi, a decorated Hero of the Soviet Union, he is already Russia's legal president. He maintains that the title given him by the former legislature that was dissolved by Boris Yeltsin last autumn still stands, because Yeltsin illegally suspended the country's constitution.

"What do you mean, I think I'm president? The law says I am,"he said indignantly when queried. "But on the territory of this country, law does not exist. It's the law of those who are in power."

Even if he does not like the new rules, Rutskoi is still willing to play the political game, and his early campaigning appears to be already paying off. In meetings in local factories and town squares across Russia, organizers have gathered 560,000 signatures supporting his new party, the Derzhava Social Patriotic Movement, he said.

In both his emphasis on grass-roots organization and his nationalist rhetoric, Rutskoi's approach closely resembles that of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a comparison the former vice president does not find flattering. Yet many of Rutskoi's favorite themes would definitely appeal to Zhirinovsky.

Take Rutskoi's vision of a new Russian Empire, for example.

"We have the historical right to revive the great Russian nation within the borders of the former Soviet Union,"he told a factory crowd of about 100 people on Tuesday.

"Let's cut off Russian gas, Russian electricity, Russian oil and strategic minerals and let them taste true independence," he said of the newly independent states that less than three years ago were part of the Soviet Union.

Such a strategy would bring the former republics back to the Russian motherland, he predicted. In an interview later, Rutskoi did distinguish his vision of the new Russian empire from Zhirinovsky's in one important respect -- it would not include Alaska, which Russia sold to the United States in 1867.

Rutskoi's stump speeches were also liberally peppered with what could be interpreted as plain xenophobia.

In both a factory speech and a later address to 3,000 people in a major town square, Rutskoi condemned the recent agreement to open a U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Moscow. He also cited the U.S. nuclear weapons doctrine of the 1950s and a Vanity Fair article called "Let's Buy Siberia" as examples of Western hostility to Russia.

Another well-trodden theme was the pathetic condition of the Russian armed forces, in which Rutskoi served most of his career, and the ineptitude of the present-day KGB, which he said appeared to be reporting to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Written questions from the audience included a number about the October uprising in which Rutskoi called for rebels to attack the mayor's offices and the Ostankino television tower. He used the opportunity to attack Yeltsin and to promote his book on the uprising, due out in the coming months.

"I can't understand how someone can give the order to kill his own people," he said. "If they shot once, where is there any guarantee that they won't shoot again, especially if they did it before the world on CNN?"

"What a nightmare," a few in the audience gasped as he described the rebel death tol, which he stated at 500, far above the official figure of under 150.

A number of locals who watched Rutskoi this week said they knew little about what happened last October, but were ready to believe him.

"Russian people always support those in opposition," said Valentina Sankina, a slender accountant with short hair. "Any figure who wants to gain political authority should go into the political opposition for a few months."